Congratulations are in order for Vanessa Veselka: PEN American has awarded her debut novel Zazen the Robert W. Bingham Prize. I first heard about the novel last year, from what was then the brand-spanking-new LARB, though this Minnesota Public Radio profile of Veselka is also a great way to get acquainted with her exciting talents.
In a promotional video for The Great Frustration, Seth Fried’s debut book, the author deadpans, “Technically, the book is a collection of short stories. Though I prefer to think of it as a novel that doesn’t make any sense. [Pause.] That is how we’re marketing it.” On his “Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog,” he fantasizes about ditching literary fiction to become an advertising copywriter hawking “Seth Farm Pigeon Butter” (“the pigeon butter that’s a smidgen better”); and urges fans who want to help sales of The Great Frustation to “social media the book with social media.” And before Hurricane Irene, he offered some (good) advice to New York apartment dwellers by way of a hilarious tweet which ended up going viral.
Fried, 28, is one of the funniest writers in America. But it’s not just his sly, absurdist sense of humor that makes him an author to watch — his short stories manage to be both hilarious and tragic, both surreal and enormously sensitive. The Great Frustration is a debut, but it’s also something most writers, even the most acclaimed ones, have never accomplished: it is a perfect short story collection. It’s also the best book I read in 2011.
Too often, fiction written by very funny people can turn either frivolous or precious, but Fried’s stories never even come close to trivial. He’s a brilliant humorist — see “The Frenchman,” one of the funniest stories I’ve read in years — but he doesn’t use jokes where they don’t belong, and he never uses humor to show off, or to avoid tragic conclusions that many authors would rather not face.
Humor isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal. Fried has a keen sense of history and science, which he uses to great effect in stories like the heartbreaking “The Misery of the Conquistador” and the uniquely beautiful “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those stories someday end up in a definitive anthology of American fiction; they’re that good.) Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before.
I should mention some of the other great books I read in 2011. This year brought some amazing fiction — Alan Heathcock’s dark, beautiful short story collection Volt, and the brilliant novels Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and, especially, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas. I was happy to read two wonderful essay collections, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, and You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone (who, like Fried, is also a gifted humorist). And the books The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean were shining examples of flawless nonfiction. And finally, this was the year that I promised myself I would catch up on the classics I’ve missed, and read Bleak House.
I did not. Here’s to 2012.
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In simplest jacket-copy rendering, Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka and released recently from Cursor/Red Lemonade, is the story of a young woman’s attempt to come to terms with the world around her, even as it seems to fall to pieces itself. The narrator, Della Mylinek, is a twenty-seven-year-old paleontologist-cum-waitress, slinging tofu scrambles in a vegetarian restaurant called Rise Up Singing. The novel takes place in a fading industrial city that bears striking resemblance to Portland, Oregon, in a time of social and political unrest not drastically unlike the present. The people with whom the narrator surrounds herself (primarily her coworkers at the Rise Up Singing) are of the socially and politically fashionable counterculture, more interested in funky hairstyles and protest sex than any kind of organized political action.
Della, raised by aging radical leftists, feels at times sympathetic to these new-age revolutionaries and at times put off by them. Every act of rebellion in Della’s circle, whether social, political, or violent, seems motivated by some level of concern for appearance, a desire to be fashionable in resistance. Perhaps as a rejection of the politics of fashion, or perhaps because she’s better suited to operating alone, when Della makes the first move in her own personal rebellion, she starts small and keeps it to herself.
I looked up the number of the sports bar and called in a bomb threat. I don’t even know where the idea came from. When the bartender answered I told him they were all going to die in multiple explosions in the fourth quarter. Then I went and looked through the windows to see what would happen, but nothing did. They were pink and bored.
Not long after Della’s flop of a bomb threat, a real bomb goes off in the bathroom of an office building downtown. This will be the first of many. No one is hurt and the self-styled revolutionaries populating Rise Up Singing trade rumors as to who is responsible for the explosives and the political goals behind them.
Mitch, the cook, thought it was eco-terrorists for sure. Kelly, the fill-in dishwasher, agreed but then they split over whether it was an anarcho-primitivist cell or the Redwood Action Collective. That’s how the betting pool got started. Mirror put each theory up on the “Specials” board as it came in and collected the money. By dinner she had erased the board twice, each time, writing smaller so it would all fit. As the list grew, I began to notice something. Everybody had a pretty good reason to blow up a building.
Excitement, and terror, mounts and the explosions and general upheaval serve to mobilize and inspire a radical underground resistance movement to which, by accident, Della eventually finds herself inextricably connected. She will be forced to decide her role in the revolution.
I started reading Zazen by marking the passages I might want to mention in my review. I circled interesting paragraphs, drew boxes around my favorite lines, dog-eared every third page. A quarter of the way through the book I had to put it down for a day or so and when I picked it back up I realized what a mess I’d made. The first fifty pages resembled a term paper returned by a very approving teacher with abhorrent handwriting and excessively cryptic shorthand. It was no way to read a novel. I forced myself to drop the academic approach, to settle in and enjoy the ride. I made a few notes here and there, but mostly I just read the thing.
Leafing back through the pages, I find that a common thread in my markings, check marks, and boxes is an appreciation of the places that Veselka could have taken jabs at the secondary characters, could have drawn unnecessary attention to their shallowness or made jokes at their expense. Of course, as narrator, Della has her share of commentary, but Veselka gives all her characters space to exist on their own terms. If you’ll excuse a writing workshop cliché, she gives them the rope, and while some characters end up hanging themselves, others use it to climb upward instead. These are, in some ways, pretty reprehensible people (even Della isn’t necessarily someone you’d want to have over for dinner with the family), but the characters are all rendered with respect and humanity that is more than admirable in a literary and media culture that sometimes seems overly prone to cynicism and biting sarcasm.
But perhaps the thing most remarkable about Veselka’s novel is the same thing that makes it such a tough book to review. I’m afraid to ruin the mystery. In much of so-called literary fiction, plot plays second fiddle to character and voice and a thousand other immaterial things. In Zazen, on the other hand, Veselka grabs plot by the lapels and brings it to the forefront of the book without sacrificing the effectiveness of the more ethereal aspects of good fiction. Though I’ve been trained to read for language, sound, beauty, and philosophy, and this novel has plenty of all, I was just as fascinated by the intricate turns the narrative took as it progressed, just as wowed by material revelations in the story that wouldn’t have stood out as clearly in other literary novels. So I’ve been careful, erring on the side of vagueness, because I hope you’ll read Zazen, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience.
The other day, I got my paws on an advance copy of Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, which will be released this May by Red Lemonade, an imprint of Cursor, Richard Nash’s start-up publishing community. I loved the cover, which reminds me of some of Ed Ruscha’s paintings, and a sentence early on pleased me greatly: “He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook.” Oh how I love an ornery waitress!
Then I turned to the back cover, and read Veselka’s bio:
Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress and a mother. Her work has appeared in Arthur, Bust, Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tin House, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.
Sex-worker? Train hopper? Wow, I thought, I need to get out more. I suppose if I’d had such a dramatic and compelling past, I might include those facts in my own bio. But would I? I tend to prefer only a listing one’s writing-related achievements, however, I recognize this might be closed-minded and uptight of me. My preference of author bio favors academic and publication history over life and work experience, though one could argue–and do so convincingly–that that isn’t necessarily what matters most. Why should one kind of bio be any more relevant than another?
Still, I can’t help but feel a tinge of annoyance when I read that John Brandon wrote his second novel Citrus County while working “at a Frito-Lay warehouse and a Sysco warehouse.” How cute. I admit, I did laugh at this next line: “During another part of the writing of this book he was unemployed,” and I felt relieved to learn that during the novel’s revision, he’d received a fellowship from the University of Mississippi.
And there’s Benjamin Hale, author of the debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. From his bio we learn not only that he’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but also that he’s been “a night shift baker, a trompe l’oeil painter, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer.” Oh. I see.
And there’s my friend Joseph Mattson, author of the novel Empty the Sun. The last line of his bio reads:
An epical rambler–miles under him include work as a farmer, dishwasher, getaway driver, and in healthcare for the clinically mentally insane–his home base is Los Angeles.
I have to wonder why Joseph didn’t include his years-long tenure at Book Soup, where he’s the man behind the beautiful signage. (It could be his mention of the “clinically mentally insane” is a veiled reference to that job…) Is graphic design too stable and predictable an occupation for the author of a novel as whiskey-soaked as Empty The Sun? Probably. For when it comes down to it, this is just a question of branding.
Most of the time, the choice to include non-writing information suggests that the author is an outsider, or wants to be considered one. Donald Ray Pollack, for instance, worked 32 years in a paper mill before the publication of his short story collection Knockemstiff. This implies that his worldview has been honed by far more than reading, writing, and teaching writing; he has an MFA, but he’s not like the rest of those MFA-grads (yawn) who have debut story collections! And his bio works: I’m interested in his distinct point of view, and also, I don’t see why he shouldn’t include an activity that was a decades-long career. Readers are concerned with authenticity, even when what they’re reading is fiction.
The thing is, a bio that focuses on the author’s non-writing jobs bothers me in the same way those new Levi’s ads bother me; “All work is equally important” the billboards read, the text paired with black-and-white photographs of beautiful be-denimed men, usually standing in fields. Am I really supposed to believe these guys are farmers? Please. As Americans, we romanticize manual and/or blue collar labor, even as we ignore the real people who do these jobs today–or are losing these jobs either to technology or to a cheaper workforce overseas. A walk through the men’s department at Macy’s proves the current obsession with the working class: a $200 flannel, anyone? Last week in Brooklyn, I saw hordes of men in work boots, plaid shirts, and the hats of longshoremen–and I’ll let you in on a little secret: these men weren’t headed for the docks. Levi’s knows that people who can afford designer jeans do not want to see themselves as administrative assistants, or worse: creative writing teachers. Maybe Doubleday knows this as well; I get the feeling that Pollack’s bio stuns anyone who has not worked in a factory.
Or is my annoyance at the non-standard bio about something else? With the authors who have held a dozen, motley jobs, I worry that book writing is just a hobby for them, a one-off thing, another occupation in a long line of them. God damn the dilettantes multi-talented! Or is it because such a bio suggests that writing, and the devotion to that pursuit, isn’t worthy enough for its own three-line biography? Maybe it’s that tired idea that writers are lame, sheltered wimps who haven’t really lived. “Please!” these bios call out. “I’m more than just a writer! I am worthy of your admiration and respect!”
I’m sure this is all stemming from my own insecurities. Part of me is embarrassed by the fact that I’ve pursued writing since I was a kid, that I did not have a long and colorful life before I put pen to paper. I’m probably just envious. I can’t blame the writers whose bios spotlight a different kind of life, a different part of life. As I said, it’s all branding, in the end. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
The truth is, every published writer has been faced with summing themselves up in just a few sentences. It’s not easy, and a bio isn’t a fixed thing–or at least not until you’re dead. Until then, it (hopefully) evolves with each new publication, each year lived. The decision of what to include and exclude persists throughout one’s career.
The real question, then, is: What makes a writer? Unfortunately, a few sentences cannot answer that. A writer is made by writing, and by reading, and by living: going to work, and eating, and being bored, being loved and being hurt, being held by your mother (or not), by sleeping, by waking up from bad dreams, by erasing one sentence, and rewriting it, erasing it again. All that, you see, cannot be summed up in a jacket flap.
Maybe these other writers are onto something. Maybe I should revise my bio approach. How does this sound:
Before Edan Lepucki published her first novel, she was an independent bookseller, a cheesemonger, a team member at Jamba Juice, a bored salesgirl at an art gallery gift shop, a law firm receptionist, a file clerk, and a model for children’s exercise wear. She had her first kiss when she was twelve, but didn’t lose her virginity until college, where she was a member of a hip-hop dance group and lived in a house with a broken heating system. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the MFA program at Syracuse had been her first choice, but they rejected her ass. Her parents didn’t graduate from college, and neither did her older sister, so, you know, she’s not some stuffy professorial type. Please buy her book, which–let the record show–did not glide easily into publication, despite her quote-unquote literary pedigree.
Now please, kind reader, buy my novel. I’ll let you know when it’s out.